So how can a person stand hearing criticism and maybe even benefit from it? Harriet Lerner, PhD, a psychologist and the best-selling author of The Dance of Anger and The Dance of Connection, says you can forget about not feeling crummy when someone tells you something you don't want to hear. "The first thing is to accept that you will feel defensive," she says. "We all wish that we could become so mature that we're not vulnerable to the criticisms of others. But that's not real life."
In real life, though we may not have a choice about how we feel, we can take charge of how we react. The first step, according to Lerner, is to calm down so you can focus on what the person is really trying to tell you. "Sometimes when the other person is being their most obnoxious," says Lerner, "the challenge is for you to be your best self."
Being your best self, says Lerner, means not turning the argument around to them. "Someone has found the courage to confront you with a criticism," she says. "That's an invitation for you to listen, not to strike back with the bad things that they've done." It's also important to remember that people who offer advice in a less than caring way might be struggling with their own feelings of inadequacy. "When somebody comes at you in an intense way, it may have more to do with them than you," says Lerner. "There are likely to be distortions and inaccuracies in what they're telling you."
Hearing useful criticism or hard advice through the static isn't easy, and you may have to work at discovering something that rings true. "Ask questions only to understand," says Lerner. "Try to wrap your brain around the piece you can agree with—and run with that."
She gives an example from her years of private practice: A depressed daughter confronted her mother with a litany of accusations—saying her mother ignored her feelings after the mother and father divorced, that she was responsible for the father's drinking, and that it was her fault that the daughter had trouble with men. Despite her initial anger, the mother was able to acknowledge that she'd been distant. But she said she could not be responsible for her ex's alcoholism or her daughter's romantic trials. The relationship was strengthened, as was the mother's awareness of the impact of her past actions.
Lerner warns against striving for deep connection with everyone in your life. "If you're talking about a key relationship, like with your mother or daughter," says Lerner, "the issue of hanging in is much more vital than if it's the dry-cleaning person." Or even your boss. At work, she advises asking for specific feedback, then responding without engaging in a prolonged emotional interaction: "You may just want to say, 'I'm going to consider this very carefully and try to do my best work.'"
So next time someone decides to tell you how you've messed something up, or how much you've hurt them, or just how wrong you are in general, take a few deep breaths—and keep listening. Then take responsibility for what you can, dust yourself off, and keep going. As Lerner says, "Being able to shift out of that defensive place to a position of pure listening is the ultimate spiritual act."
Sarah Goodyear is the author of View from a Burning Bridge.
Handle Conflicts With Ease